Can My 3-Year-Old's Tantrums Actually Kill Me?

I'm not 100% sure I will survive parenting my toddlers.
Publish date:
July 27, 2015
parenting, tantrums, mental health, toddlers

For the second morning in a row, I stood over my son while he sat on the dirty concrete of our apartment building’s driveway, screaming, fists shaking, ten feet from the open car door where his twin brother, having compliantly buckled himself into his carseat, looked on with eyes full of tears. For the second morning in a row, I nodded curtly to a nosy passerby while oscillating between telling my screaming son to take deep breaths and calling to my scared son that everything was okay.

After more screaming — so much more screaming — and another attempt to forcibly place my child into his seat, Zachy acquiesced enough to let me fit his harness straps over his shoulders and secure the buckle between his legs. He stopped wailing when it was his turn to snap the chest clip, and quietly sniffled as he adjusted its placement to armpit level. We pulled it tight together, I handed him his book – and closed the door.

What I wanted to do then was to collapse onto the ground in my own fit of tears and screams. What I did instead was calmly walk around to the other side, reassure my other child, double check his harness securement, and get myself into the driver’s seat. We were already 20 minutes late for preschool; we did not have time for me to break down too.

For the entire drive, two thoughts cycled its way through my brain: I am not emotionally resilient enough for this. I wonder if anyone has ever died from her child’s tantrum.

My sons are almost 3 years old; they are bright and funny, loving and mischievous. They love adventure and construction equipment, babies and animals, throwing rocks and making salad. They were late pre-term babies, but healthy and strong and are now tall and nimble. One child is exceedingly verbal, responds well to consistency, consequences and praise but is sensitive to being tired or hungry. The other child is watchful, remembers where we are going and where we have been; he is intentional with his affection; when he needs it, he requires it. He prefers to self-soothe and initiate contact. He pauses an extra beat before answering a question. His speech was slower to come, and more difficult to discern than his brother’s. His tantrums, in turn, are intense. And also unlike his brother, when they begin, I cannot see an end. I cannot identify the path out. I crumple inside – because I don’t know what to do (even though I know what to do – in moments of calm I am all-consumed with knowing what to do: I read, I solicit advice and listen, I am steadfast, I practice tantrum prevention with vehemence – but when the wails begin, I lose sight of all of it).

Of course, constant access to online parenting advice is both helpful and harmful. After a particularly bad morning, I can type into Google (after turning on my browser’s private mode, of course – I wouldn’t want the internets to know that I am full of shame and self-doubt): “Can my child’s tantrums kill me?” Search results include more ways for me to internalize my insecurity and mental self-flagellation: “Many tantrums are avoidable… think ahead,” and “Make sure that your child has a full reservoir of your love and attention.” Sorry to break it to you, A-ha Parenting, but life is hard. I’ve got twins. My attention is divided, always, and forever.

But even if I only had one toddler – it is impossible to be constantly mindful, present and in touch with my child’s needs and emotional experience while keeping us on schedule, maintaining our livelihood and health. How can I both self-care and care-take?

This question is largely rhetorical, as I am doing it now, processing my morning’s bad start through writing. I witness others doing the same thing every day, all day long. Parents, or anyone who struggles with juggling multiple roles and competing priorities must constantly compartmentalize and time-share energy and resources. It is exhausting.

And biology demands this exhaustion from us: a 2012 study of brain imaging found that the sound of crying babies elicits immediate response from two points of emotional processing, rendering us immediately alert and motivated to do something—anything—within 100 milliseconds. In addition, the sub-cortical areas of the brain, responsible for primitive instincts and fight-or-flight, are triggered by infants’ cries. We are therefore powerless before the mercy of our subconscious selves: as much as I want to maintain control and tranquility during a tantrum, evolution has adapted me to meet my children’s’ needs immediately and without cognition.

Prior to understanding why I react so strongly to the aural experience of my child’s tantrum, I knew that something very powerful was happening. Zachy’s cries have always caused a visceral reaction for me. When he vocalizes distress, there's something about the pitch, the timbre, the tone that is different than anything I have ever known. The hair on my arms stands up; my ears ring; I am immediately distracted and disoriented. Within my genetic core I yearn to give him what he needs (and as happens as an infant becomes a toddler, what he wants). My body reaches to give in to him, to hand him the cookie, to put the toothbrush away, to re-start Elmo’s Song.

But, like emerging from a dive into deep water and hearing the muffled sounds of the world become slowly unmuted, my adult brain remembers that it is my job to parent. To offer fruit over cookies, to insist upon dental hygiene, to save everyone’s musical sanity.

And so I deal. I move through my world as a competent, patient and compassionate mother. I give my son space when he needs space, hold him tight when he needs to be held tight. Offer him appropriate choices, provide well-timed structure and lack of structure. All the meanwhile, I ask myself, “Am I going to die today?”

As such, it is absurd to me that I am able to present as a normal and even knowledgeable parent. The fact that I can nod at the aforementioned passerby with equal parts kindness and resolve on my face while my cortisol levels peak and then further peak is baffling. Parenting toddlers is frightening in its intensity and dangerous in its mandated-by-society’s hiding away of things that are ugly and discomfiting.

I am indescribably fortunate and privileged to be raising my children with affluence and education, without the imminent danger of warfare, abuse or intergenerational trauma. And yet I spend far too much time feeling sorry for myself. In addition to Dr. Google’s omnipresence, I can’t stop comparing myself to the expressions of perfect parenting happening on my Facebook newsfeed. As a woman of a certain age, there is a constant stream of motherhood humblebrag that belittles how hard parenting really is.

Social Media Inadequacy and Alienation Syndrome is definitely a thing, and I am coining the phrase: surveyed 7,000 mothers in the United States and 42% reported feeling stressed as a direct result of comparative parental inadequacy, exacerbated by spending sleepless nights hyper-focusing on what others can do better than ourselves.

I should probably delete the Facebook app instead of composing self-deprecating status updates that I’ll never post, such as “Funny how my children like to wait until after the bathtub is full to pee a synchronized cross-stream. #californiadrought,” and “No, child of mine, you cannot sit down in the middle of a major intersection’s crosswalk because you don’t like that the red hand is blinking at you,” or, “I’m so glad that Kaiser Permanente would rather prescribe me Ativan than provide me with cognitive-behavioral therapy.”

I’ll cut to the chase and spoil my story: I’m still alive. I hope to say the same tomorrow. Processing my shortcomings through writing and humor is helpful; I hope that it is also a healthy-enough coping mechanism and that I am modeling good-enough adultness (see? There I go again, blaming myself for future hypothetical parenting failures). I shall now follow my own tantrum instructions and simply try to breathe through this indecipherable cascade of emotional overwhelm that is parenting.